Japan’s botanical sunrise

plant exploration around the Meiji Restoration

Peter Barnes

(originally published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine 18(1): 117-131 (2001))

It is generally appreciated that Western gardens have been greatly enriched by the native plants of the Far East. The contribution of China, a vast area with an enormous indigenous flora is quite well-documented; that of neighbouring Japan, rather less so. The period from the time of the first tentative trading approaches, by the Portuguese and Dutch, until the mid-19th century is notable for the botanical achievements of various Dutch medical officers based in Dejima, notably Kaempfer, Thunberg and Siebold, recorded in some detail by Stearn (1947, 1949, 1971, 1999), but details of later botanical activities are rather patchy.

The Perry expedition of 1852-4, sent by American President Fillmore to establish a foothold in Japan, marked the real sea-change in international relations, and eventually in accessibility. Perry first arrived in Japan in 1853, seeking favourable trading rights, and backed up by a considerable naval force. Returning the following year, he was able to conclude the Treaty of Kanagawa that allowed the United States to trade openly through the two, admittedly obscure, ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, and to establish a consulate in Shimoda. By 1858, limited foreign residence was permitted and further ports became accessible. That year, Russia, France, Holland and Britain signed similar treaties and the way began to open for relatively free travel within Japan by foreigners, some of whose efforts are recorded here.

The translator on Perry’s expedition, S. Wells Williams (1812-1884) and agriculturist James Morrow (1820-1865), commemorated in the shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera morrowii and the sedge Carex morrowii, collected a small number of specimens in the immediate vicinities of Shimoda and Hakodate between 1852 and 1854, although neither made any recorded living introductions.

A subsequent American expedition was the Ringgold and Rodgers US North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856. Visiting Japan, the accompanying botanists Charles Wright (1811-1885) and J. Small (dates unknown) collected at Hakodate, Tanegashima, the Bonin Islands and the Ryukyu Islands including Okinawa. The former is commemorated in in Viburnum wrightii, the latter by the seldom-grown Trillium smallii, and Rodgers in the genus Rodgersia. In 1859 the American botanist Asa Gray published a paper on the new plants collected by Wright, developing his theory on the relationships between the Japanese flora and that of eastern North America.

From about 1854, Charles Wilford (?-1893) was an assistant in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In 1857, however, he found himself seeking plants in Hong Kong, moving to Taiwan the following year and to Korea and Japan in 1859. Wilford was perhaps the first Western botanist to collect on the island of Tsushima, which lies between western Japan and South Korea. He also collected at Hakodate in Hokkaido. No living plant introductions are attributed to him; his dried collections are at Kew, and were later studied by Maximowicz, among others. Plants which commemorate him include Sorbus wilfordii (now included in S. commixta var. rufoferruginea), Geranium wilfordii, the fern Dictyocline wilfordii and Tripterygium wilfordii, a seldom-cultivated scrambling shrub in the Celastraceae.

Shin Yabakei, Kyushu

Siebold, so active in Nagasaki until his expulsion in 1829, ceased to be persona non grata in 1855 and in 1859 he again travelled to Japan, meeting his daughter, now 31, for the first time in 29 years. The Japanese authorities saw in him great potential as an adviser on western sciences and technologies. Unfortunately, some western governments, especially the Dutch, saw this role as being in conflict with their own interests in Japan, and Siebold was pressured into leaving Japan for home in 1861, dying in Germany in 1866. The great majority of pre-1860 plant introductions from Japan to the West can be more or less certainly attributed to Siebold and his agents. His activities in Japan are commemorated in the many plants bearing his name: familiar examples can be found in the genera Acer, Prunus, Hosta, Malus, Dryopteris, Sedum, Magnolia and Clematis.

In 1859, C. Pemberton Hodgson (dates unknown) enjoyed a tour of duty as British Consul at Hakodate in southern Hokkaido. Little seems to be recorded about Hodgson, although he clearly took a wider interest in the country than his official duties might suggest. In the main, he sent back dried specimens, studied by Sir W.J. Hooker and subsequently listed in his 1861 Catalogue of Japan Plants. Hodgson also sent back some living material, notably the handsome Ligularia hodgsonii, figured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for 1863. Hodgson’s specimens were also written up by the first Curator of the Kew Herbarium, Allan A. Black.

In the same year, a German exploring expedition to the Far East spent four months in Japan, visiting Nagasaki, Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands. The botanical members of this expedition were Otto Schotmuller (?-1864) and Max Ernst Wichura (1817-66). Once again, relatively little appears to be recorded of their achievements, but the latter is well commemorated in Rosa wichurana. The prostrate habit of this white-flowered species and its fine glossy foliage have made it an important element in modern rose breeding.

The Scot, Robert Fortune (1812-1880) made five journeys to the Far East for the Horticultural Society of London (later the Royal Horticultural Society), doubtless encouraged by the success of Reeves in Canton from 1812. Fortune was perhaps the first to use the Wardian case for exporting live plants, notably to introduce the tea plant to India. Fortune visited Japan in 1860, his Japanese introductions arriving in 1861 and including the sawara cypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera, Akebia japonica, Cryptomeria japonica, Corylopsis spicata, Saxifraga fortunei, Filipendula purpurea and Rhododendron degronianum subsp. heptamerum.

Two rather mysterious figures collected herbarium specimens, cited by Maximowicz, in Japan at around this time. One is a Dr. Niewerth, of whom nothing whatever appears to be known except that he collected in the vicinity of Tokyo see footnote. The other is cited by Maximowicz simply as Textor. The Harvard University Herbaria database of plant collectors lists a C.M. Textor, dates unknown, who collected in Japan in 1842; also a Carl Julius Textor. The latter is said to have collected in Japan from 1856, as well as possibly in Java. There are apparently specimens under both names at Leiden, and Maximowicz mentions collections from “Susokatoge”, most probably a mountain pass in Kyushu. Heinrich Buerger also collected at this site and it is likely that Textor, like Buerger, was another of Siebold’s collectors.

The prominent activity of Americans in Japan continued with the arrival of Dr. George Rogers Hall (1822-1899). Working as a doctor in Shanghai from 1846, he later became involved in trading between the Far East and the United States. Moving to Japan in 1855 to expand his trading activities, he founded a garden in Yokohama. Probably at the suggestion of Fortune, who had visited his garden in 1860, Hall also used the Wardian case for exporting plants. It was in Hall’s garden that Fortune recognised male-flowered plants of Aucuba japonica, previously known in the West from its female cultivar ‘Variegata’, introduced in 1783.

In 1861, Hall sent his first consignment of plants back to America. Among his successful introductions to the United States were such now-familiar plants as Magnolia stellata, M. kobus, Malus halliana, Taxus cuspidata, Zelkova serrata and Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’, as well as the less common Lycoris squamigera and Juniperus davurica ‘Expansa’. It appears that Hall, Fortune and, later, J.G. Veitch worked to some extent in a cooperative spirit and several plants, notably Magnolia stellata, were introduced almost simultaneously by them to the United States and to Britain respectively. It is also known that Hall obtained many plants from Siebold during the latter’s second sojourn in Japan; he also had others collecting for him.

The Russian botanist Carl Johann Maximowicz (1827-1891) arrived in Japan late in 1860. Born Karl Ivanovich Maksimovich, he adopted a Germanic version of his name for his scientific work. Initially based at Hakodate, he later travelled extensively in southern Japan. For much of 1862 he worked in the region of Yokohama and the Hakone mountains, visiting Mount Fuji, but he ended that year in Nagasaki. From there, both he, and Tschonoski working with him, explored various parts of Kyushu including Kûjû-dake, the Aso caldera and Kumamoto.

Maximowicz established good working contacts with native botanists and other Japanese, notably Tschonoski Sugawa (1841-1925)--a Russian transliteration, still in general usage, of the name Chonosuke. Tschonoski continued to send him material after Maximowicz had returned to Russia in 1864. Later Japanese correspondents include Jinzô Matsumura (1856-1928), remembered in attractive but, at present, seldom cultivated species of Sorbus, Potentilla and Plagiogyria (a fern) bearing his name; Yoshio Tanaka (1838-1916)--Stephanandra tanakae; Yasusada Tashiro 1856-1925) (written ‘Tachiro Yassuda’ by Maximowicz; Adenophora tashiroi commemorates him), Kingo Miyabe (1860-1951) and the ‘father of modern Japanese taxonomic botany’, Tomitarô Makino (1862-1957)--Gentiana makinoi.

Maximowicz sent home 72 chests full of herbarium specimens, the basis for a major study of the Japanese flora. His Diagnoses plantarum novarum Asiaticum, published in seven parts between 1877 and 1893, also cites collections by Albrecht, Bisset, Dickins, Faurie, Keiske Itô, Mertens, Oldham, Rein, Savatier, Vidal, Wilford, Wright and others. In 1866 he was able to purchase part of Siebold’s herbarium of Japanese plants; his own is still in St. Petersburg, and near-complete sets of duplicates are held at Kew and Paris. As well as the preserved specimens, he had about 300 lots of seed and 400 living plants sent to St. Petersburg, successful introductions including Lespedeza bicolor, Kalopanax septemlobus, Rhododendron macrosepalum and Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata’.

It is not surprising that his name is commemorated in a large number of plants. Some of those of great garden value include Acer maximowiczianum (syn. A. nikoense), Betula maximowicziana, Lilium leichtlinii var. maximowiczii (syn. var. tigrinum), Picea maximowiczii and the wonderful, yellow-flowered Weigela maximowiczii. However, it is upon his comprehensive studies of Japanese (and other) plants, that his reputation stands in perpetuity.

The famous Veitch nurseries in England supported collecting trips to various parts of the world, including eastern Asia. In 1860-61 John Gould Veitch travelled in Japan, China and the Philippines. As a nurseryman, his objective was the introduction of good garden plants, in which he was particularly successful: in 1914 W.J. Bean felt able to describe Veitch’s time in Japan as ‘one of the most successful of all plant-collecting enterprises’. He is remembered especially for the large number of conifers he introduced, including Abies firma, Pinus parviflora, Tsuga diversifolia, Larix kaempferi, Picea jezoensis, Picea bicolor, Picea polita and the first large-scale introduction to Britain of Sciadopitys verticillata. However, Veitch cast his net wide and also brought to our gardens Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Zelkova serrata, the variegated form of Cornus controversa, Lilium auratum and several good ferns including Woodsia polystichoides, Dryopteris varia, Adiantum monochlamys and Coniogramme japonica. Veitch’s name is remembered in many good plants, including species of Abies, Berberis, Corylopsis, Erica, Gentiana, Magnolia, Meliosma, Pandanus, and Rhododendron, as well as cultivars of Acer, Deutzia, Malus, Parthenocissus and many others.

The last plant collector to be formally employed as such by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (the Garden has continued to support expeditions by members of its staff and others), was Richard Oldham (1837-1864). A gardener at Kew, by 1861 he was collecting in eastern Asia. He collected in the Nagasaki area, western Honshu, around Yokohama and in the Bonin Islands in 1862 and 1863, dying in China at only 27. Vaccinium oldhamii and Desmodium oldhamii were named in his honour. He appears to have made no living introductions but his extensive herbarium collections were studied by Daniel Oliver at Kew, by Miquel in Leiden and by Maximowicz in St. Petersburg.

Thomas Hogg (1820-1892) was born in England but his family emigrated to the United States almost immediately after his birth. His father, also Thomas, established a nursery in New York, later run by the younger Thomas’s brother James, a connection which was to prove useful later in his life. In 1862 Thomas, junior, was appointed a US Marshal and in the same year he went to Japan in that role, staying there until 1870, and returning there from 1873 to 1875. During these tours of duty he acquired and sent to his brother’s nursery a wide selection of plants including the first introductions, at least to the United States, of Hosta decorata, Stuartia pseudocamellia, Styrax obassia, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Symplocos paniculata, Pueraria lobata, Cornus kousa and Magnolia hypoleuca.

Veitch had made some of the first introductions of Japanese ferns in 1861, at the height of the brief but intense period of interest in these plants in Britain (the ‘Victorian fern craze’). It is therefore not surprising that others visiting Japan at this time also showed an interest in these plants. Frederick Victor Dickins (1838-1915), a naval surgeon on board HMS Coromandel, was also a lawyer and subsequently set up in Yokohama as a barrister. His special interest was ferns, which he collected around Yokohama and at Atami on the neck of the Izu Peninsula between 1863 and 1865, sending both living plants and drawings to Kew, where they were studied by J.D. Hooker. He also collected for Savatier (who named a Dryopteris after him) during the latter’s residence in Japan.

Another collector whose activities extended to ferns was James Bisset (1843-1911). He visited Japan on several occasions between 1866 and 1886, sending specimens to Kew and to Maximowicz. Bisset’s collections were made chiefly in the Yokohama area, the mountains of the Hakone and Nikko areas, and specifically on the mountain Ô-yama. Viola bissetii and Dryopteris bissetiana were named for him.

Bamboos are strongly associated with Japanese gardens in the Western mind. Another Englishman, Algernon Bertram Freeman Mitford (1837-1916), later Lord Redesdale, through his book The Bamboo Garden (1896), who did much to arouse interest in them as garden plants. In the British diplomatic service, he was based in Japan from 1866 to 1870 as Second Secretary to the British Legation in Tokyo, under the Minister, Sir Harry Parkes. After his return, he established a major arboretum at Batsford Park in Gloucestershire, where he collected a wide range of hardy bamboos.

These were dramatic times in Japan, and Parkes and his aides favoured the unification of the country under the Emperor, with the consequent removal of the shogunate as ultimate authority. This finally came to pass in 1867, when the then Shogun yielded his supremacy to the young Emperor Meiji -- the Meiji Restoration. Prior to this, travel in Japan could be difficult and even dangerous, often impeded by bureaucratic restrictions. The Meiji Restoration set the seal on a new openness in almost every respect, and saw Japan enter its modern age. Subsequently, Japan embraced many Western ideas and ideals, in particular in the fields of science.

After the activities of Oldham and Hogg, there was something of a lull in the introduction of living plants from Japan to the West, although botanical studies continued apace. Michael Albrecht, a medical officer to the Russian Consul in Hakodate made some collections in that area in 1867, passing them on to Maximowicz who was, by that time, immersed in his study of the Japanese flora.

On a quite different scale, however, is the work of the Frenchman, Paul Amedée Ludovic Savatier (1830-1891), whose work was most influential in the development of Japanese floristic studies. Another medical officer, he was employed by an ironworks at Yokosuka, south of Yokohama, from 1866-1871 and again from 1873-1876. He was an energetic collector and also received material from a number of Japanese botanists including Keiske Itô and Yoshio Tanaka. Hogg and Dickins provided him with specimens, as did other foreigners such as F. Hilgendorf in the Hakodate area, F.L. Verny in Niigata and Gumma prefectures and the Spaniard, Sebastian Vidal, also in Niigata. Savatier’s own collections were mostly from the areas of Yokosuka, Hakone, Nikko and Atami, but he did reach southern Hokkaido. Although he made no living introductions, his herbarium collections were enormous and are represented in the herbarium at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, with partial sets of duplicates at Kew and the US National Herbarium, Washington DC. Savatier collaborated with Adrien René Franchet (1834-1900) to publish a comprehensive listing of Japanese plants, the Enumeratio plantarum in Japonia sponte crescentium (1875-79).

caldera of Masho-ko, Hokkaido

Between 1868 and 1871, the physician and botanist Heinrich Wawra, Ritter [Knight] von Fernsee, led an Austro-Hungarian round-the-world expedition on the ships Donau and Erzherzog Friedrich. Accompanied by Emanuel Weiss (1837-1870) and J. von Xanthus, he visited Japan in 1868. They collected mostly in the Yokohama area, but Maximowicz records that they were also active in ‘Hiogo’, i.e., Hyogo prefecture in western Honshu, or the prefectural town. Their collections were written up by their fellow-Hungarian, Agost Kanitz, in 1878 and their herbarium collections are held in Warsaw.

Captain, later Rear-Admiral, Sir Richard Massie Blomfield (1835-1921) sent to Kew a small collection of specimens from the Nagasaki area, in 1874. Another Briton, William Hancock (1847-1914), born in Northern Ireland, was in the Chinese Imperial Customs from 1874, and collected herbarium specimens in a small way in diverse places including, according to Desmond, Japan.

The combination of geographer and botanist is a useful one, and Johannes Justus Rein (1835-1918), a German, was active in both fields. He arrived in Japan in 1874 and travelled extensively, collecting herbarium specimens in the Nikko and Hakone areas, on the mountain called Hakusan near Kanazawa, in Shikoku, at several localities in western Kyushu and on Amami-Ôshima in the Ryukyu Islands. At least two good garden plants bear his name. Primula reinii is a rare shade-loving perennial from western Honshu, and Salix reinii, an attractive alpine shrub with broad glossy leaves and rather long catkins.

Other Germans making minor collections at this time include F. Hilgendorff (1839-1904), a zoology teacher who collected on a small scale in the mountains around the Nikko and Hakone areas, also on Kano-san, a hill near Narita. Another German, Wilhelm Doenitz (1838-1912) was in Japan from 1876-1880 (according to Ohwi; the Harvard database of collectors says 1873-1879). He also collected in the Hakone and Nikko areas. In 1880, L.H. Doederlein (1855-1936) travelled with Tashiro Yasusada to Amami-Ôshima and elsewhere, whilst in 1887, Otto H. Warburg collected in Tsushima and the Gotô Islands to the west of Nagasaki, before visiting Tokyo.

One of the most productive and, perhaps, best organised of collectors for foreign herbaria was the Frenchman, Urbain Jean Faurie (1847-1915). Like many collectors in China at this period, he was a missionary. He arrived in Japan in 1874, to take up his calling in Niigata prefecture, by the Sea of Japan. By 1883 he was in Hakodate in Hokkaido, from where he was able to explore the north of that island, moving across the Straits of Tsugaru to Aomori in 1897. He ended his days in Taiwan. During his long residence in Japan, Faurie was able to travel extensively, collecting in Hokkaido, northern and central Honshu and Kyushu, as well as visiting Amami-Ôshima in the northern Ryukyu Islands and southern Korea. Over this period he amassed several hundred thousand herbarium specimens, the main collection of which is at Paris, with duplicates in the University of Kyoto herbarium, at Kew, the British Museum and elsewhere.

Faurie’s collections have subsequently been studied by many botanists: Maximowicz, and later Franchet and Savatier, cite some of his Niigata collections. A number of specialists studied particular groups such as ferns, sedges and trees as well as specific genera. It is not surprising to find his name attached to many different genera. In gardens we may see the alder, Alnus fauriei, the alpine poppy Papaver fauriei, Fauria (Nephrophyllidium) crista-galli, or Rhododendron brachycarpum subsp. fauriei; he is also remembered in a species of lady fern (Athyrium), a saxifrage, an ornamental pear, Ligularia fauriei, a veronica and several other genera.

The Englishman Charles Maries (1851-1902) proved to be one of the most effective introducers of living plants to Britain from Japan during this period, and has left a lasting legacy of fine plants bearing his name. Especially notable are Platycodon grandiflorus ‘Mariesii’, Ilex crenata ‘Mariesii’, Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii Perfecta’, the fern Davallia mariesii and Abies mariesii. After an apprenticeship with his nurseryman brother at Lytham in Lancashire, he later moved to the Veitch nursery, becoming a foreman. From 1877-1879, however, his life, like our gardens, was transformed as he collected for the Veitch nursery in China and Japan.

Each year he spent a few months in each country, but it seems that his collecting was far more successful in Japan than in China: indeed, E.H. Wilson was rather dismissive about his time in China. In April 1877, he was able to travel from Nagasaki via Shimonoseki, Kyoto, Kobe and Tokyo to Yokohama. The following month he ventured north, through Nikko and Sendai to Morioka and Aomori, climbing Mount Hakkoda where he collected Abies mariesii, before crossing to Hokkaido, Sapporo and Tokachi-dake.

A pioneer explorer of the forests of Hokkaido, he introduced the Platycodon, as well as Actinidia kolomikta, Acer maximowiczianum (better known as A. nikoense) and Schizophragma hydrangeoides, before returning via Niigata to Yokohama. The following summer found him again in Hokkaido and northern Honshu before he left for a spell in China. Something over 500 living plants were sent back to the Veitch nurseries, most subsequently gaining a firm foothold in British and other gardens. Other Maries introductions include Conandron ramondioides, Enkianthus campanulatus which is one of the finest for autumn colour, the spectacular Lilium auratum var. platyphyllum, several maples, Elaeagnus macrophylla, and Magnolia sieboldii. He ended his days in India, as Superintendent of Gardens to the Maharajah of Gwalior.

Although not directly concerned with plant collecting, I commend to the reader Isabella Bird’s book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, republished in 1984. Miss Bird spent several months travelling in Japan in 1878, showing considerable courage and determination in her itinerary, but also deep insight and sensitivity in her book, which paints vivid pictures of Japan in this period of transition. Travelling mostly with a young male interpreter of some character, and starting from Yokohama, she visited Nikko, travelling overland to Niigata, then north to the Aomori region before crossing by ferry to Hokkaido, where she spent five months. In all, she covered some 1400 miles before returning by sea to Yokohama. Her descriptions of rural life provide a vivid background--the third dimension-- to the activities of the plant collectors of her time.

The successes of Veitch, Maries and their predecessors in making live introductions, and the vast body of data generated by the many plant collectors mentioned here, did much to promote the wider appreciation of the botanical and horticultural riches of the Japanese islands. The Meiji Restoration led to the possibility of unimpeded travel for visiting Westerners; in turn, contact with them undoubtedly stimulated the development of modern scientific botany in Japan. The benefits have clearly been on both sides!

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Footnote: I am most grateful to Dr. Ursula Lang, a pharmacist of Seefeld, Germany, who contacted me in 2017 to provide some information on Dr. Niewerth:

"I found some publications about botany written by Dr. Niewerth in the journal "Mitteilungen der deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur -und Völkerkunde Ostasiens" from the years 1875 and 1876. He was a pharmacist and a teacher in the new founded medical school where German military physicians educated Japanese students in medicine."

A search on Google led me to The Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan, and the Philippines, for the year 1876, with the confirmatory entry:
"Professors at the Medical College in Yedo: Dr. Doenitz, Dr. Hilgendorf, Dr. Cochius, Dr. Funk, Niewerth, Holz. Japanese government Hospital: Dr. W. Donitz, Dr. H. Cochius, Dr. F. Hilgendorf, Dr. Funk, R. Niewerth, apothecary, W. Praun, architect."

Finally, Dr Lang pointed out a reference in the German Wikipedia giving his full name as Gottlieb Richard Niewerth and indicating that he aquired a dispensary in Rostock in the year 1877 after his return to Germany.


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